After finishing high school in 1974, Kim Ball applied for to become a cadet hydrographer. She was accepted into the program, but her excitement was soon turned into disappointment when she was asked to call back to arrange details.

“I remember that day, I rang the office, and a woman answered, and I said this is Kim Ball responding,” she said.

“There was complete silence for quite awhile on the other end, and finally she said oh my goodness you’re a girl. I’m terribly sorry dear we’re going to have to withdraw the offer.”

Today’s work opportunities for women are very different than they were in 1974 thanks to legislation and a change in industry dynamics, but it was experiences like that as well as her motivation to work in male-dominated areas that sparked an interest in the perception of women in the workplace.

It was those experiences that ultimately led her to her latest paper ‘Who you know? Women engineers and informal networking in project-based organisation in Australia’.

Since the retention of women engineers remains problematic despite decades of research, Ball embarked on a study to provide rich and deep insights into the structure of women and men engineers’ informal networks and the role they play in their working lives.

“I got the idea after I did my honours research where I looked at how international assignments impacted on women attaining interesting and challenging work,” Ball said.

“That’s because interesting and challenging work has been identified as not only one reason that women will leave their organisation but also a reason women will leave their profession.”

In the organisation that she studied, Ball found that engineers can only attain interesting and challenging work through projects and that employees have to be assigned to project teams and given those interesting jobs if they wanted to continue their personal development.

“So I asked them who have you worked with over the past three months?” Ball said.

“I found that many of the men only nominated other men, where I even saw them speaking to other engineers who are women, and I knew who they worked with over the last 12 months. Women were virtually invisible as professionals to the men.”

Differences between the genders also came in the form of work networks, as they study found that women were not highly recognised as being a career advice source in the men’s network, and when it came to co-worker technical advice women nominated other women of roughly the work population balance, whereas men mostly nominated men.

Through these findings and more, Ball identified eight factors involved in attaining interesting and challenging work in an engineering environment, and each involves making proper connections with those in power in the organisation.

“They have to be visible in the organisation, and they have to develop connections with the powerful people and say hey I’m interested in doing this job and open to this experience,” Ball said.

“So if you didn’t know the people who chose the teams then how can you push yourself forward?”

Kim Ball will be discussing her paper at the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing’sworkshop in Equity, Diversity and Gender in Employment (wEDGE) on 24th October.